Tromsø, Norway at night from Fløya mountain.

Winter 2022

The New North

– Mike Sfraga

This introduction provides context to the rapidly shifting dynamics since our last Arctic issue.

To demonstrate the growing importance of the Arctic, one could look to the evolution of U.S. policies, initiatives, and activities from 2017 onward to understand why this edition of the Wilson Quarterly is titled The New North.

It has been nearly five years since the Wilson Quarterly published its first Arctic-focused issue: Into the Arctic. This issue covered a wide range of topics in what many policymakers, scholars, journalists, and commentators were calling “the emerging Arctic.” Authors and subject matter experts were carefully selected to provide readers with a broader perspective of the Arctic to contribute important insights to public policy discussions. In that edition we argued the Arctic was not an emerging issue; rather, the region had already emerged—in fact, we maintained it was an integral part of the global political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, and security landscapes. The pace of change in the Arctic has been significant, and this perspective is now shared by many. Into the Arctic served as a policy primer at a time when the Arctic was becoming more prominent in daily news coverage, mainstream media programs, and public policy publications that did not traditionally cover the region.  

Much has happened since Into the Arctic was published. To demonstrate the growing importance of the Arctic, one could look to the evolution of U.S. policies, initiatives, and activities from 2017 onward to understand why this edition of the Wilson Quarterly is titled The New North. The United States Congress authorized construction of three new Polar Security Cutters (icebreakers) as part of the United States Coast Guard’s long-term strategy to enhance its fleet by adding six new vessels overall. The Coast Guard currently operates two icebreakers in Polar waters – the USCG Cutter Healy with duties focused in the Arctic, and the USCG Cutter Polar Star, with duties focused in the Antarctic. 

To facilitate a more integrated approach to the region, the Trump administration established the Office of the U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region within the State Department, building on a similar effort under the Obama administration when the United States chaired the Arctic Council from 2015 to 2017. In a move to reinforce interests in Greenland and the broader Arctic region, the Trump administration opened a U.S. Consulate in Nuuk, Greenland. Moreover, each branch of the U.S. military released a new or refined strategy for the Arctic and the Department of Defense recently announced the creation of the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies. The Biden administration revitalized  the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, appointed new commissioners to the United States Arctic Research Commission (in full disclosure, President Biden appointed me chair of the Commission) and called for a whole-of-government approach to the Arctic. The latter is only possible through the effort currently underway to revise the U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic Region, or NSAR. Once completed, effective implementation of the strategy will require cooperation among and between all applicable federal agencies and organizations. 

Arctic icebreaker. Photo courtesy Novatek.

On the international front, the other seven Arctic States, as well as non-Arctic States, have in recent years advanced similar policy efforts, strategies, initiatives, organizational structures, and investments to ensure they too are engaged in what has become a globalized Arctic. The broader international community has worked to develop and advance important Arctic-focused bilateral and multilateral agreements. For example, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the Polar Code to make shipping safer in the region; the Code entered into force in 2017. In the same year all eight Arctic States signed the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation. One year later, in 2018, the IMO approved a joint U.S.-Russian initiative to better manage ship routing in the Bering Strait.

In 2016 the United States convened the first high-level Arctic Science Ministerial (ASM1) with science ministers from 25 governments and the European Union participating. Since then, two additional Ministerials have occurred: ASM2 was held in Berlin, Germany in 2018, co-hosted by the European Commission, the Republic of Finland, and the Federal Republic of Germany; ASM3 was held in Tokyo, Japan in 2021, co-hosted by Finland and Japan. ASM4 is planned for France in 2023 and will be co-hosted by France and Russia. Furthermore, in 2021 the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean entered into force.  

In aggregate, the Arctic leaders who have contributed to The New North provide a timely, insightful, and essential set of perspectives and insights, covering a kaleidoscope of interrelated and integrated aspects and realities of the new Arctic. 

To be sure, there are many more examples of positive efforts to better understand, govern, and manage the new Arctic. These efforts include important international public meetings and conferences such as the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland, Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø, Norway, Arctic Futures in Brussels, Belgium, the Arctic Encounters Symposium in Anchorage, Alaska, and the Arctic Science Summit Week to be held this year in Tromsø, Norway.

Unfortunately, there are also examples of global and regional tensions that have led to an increase in military activities that many fear could in turn lead to armed conflict. It is evident the accelerated pace of global discourse, policymaking, nation-state activities, international meetings, evolving governance structures and cooperative frameworks, and public awareness of the Arctic region is far more prominent today than it was in 2017; it is what I’ve called a literal and figurative quickening of the Arctic.

The New North considers and reflects upon this current reality. Individually the authors of this issue explore themes including: the dramatic impacts of climate change (new research suggests that over the past 30 years the Arctic has warmed three-to-four times faster than the global average); the evolution of bilateral and multilateral governance structures; the need for measured, sustained and equitable economic development; diligent management of evolving shipping regimes and associated governance structures; the emergence of non-Arctic States as actors in the region; U.S. equities in the Arctic and the need for sustained and transparent engagement among all eight Arctic States, and; the importance of, and need for, strong Indigenous and youth participation in shaping the future Arctic. In aggregate, the Arctic leaders who have contributed to The New North provide a timely, insightful, and essential set of perspectives and insights, covering a kaleidoscope of interrelated and integrated aspects and realities of the new Arctic. 

This volume is one of many the Wilson Center and Polar Institute have published to provide policymakers and the public a more complete understanding of the Arctic. Since 2017, the Polar Institute has developed and led events, symposia, conferences, and publications to bring attention to, and analysis of, the Arctic. In October 2021 the Wilson Center published the Polar Institute’s monograph Navigating the Arctic’s 7Cs, a new conceptual framework built to better communicate the principal drivers of change in the Arctic. I offered this framework, with co-editor Jack Durkee, and the monograph’s nine authors, to reconceptualize and reimagine the Arctic. In the monograph, I argue our ability to collectively and collaboratively navigate seven important Arctic drivers – climate, commodities, commerce, connectivity, communities, cooperation, and competition— will, in the end, determine the region’s fate. 

The New North complements the Wilson Quarterly’s 2017 Into the Arctic edition, reinforces the utility of the Navigating the Arctic’s 7Cs framework, and builds upon the Polar Institute’s body of public policy work. In short, this new volume offers timely, important, and cogent analysis of the most pressing issues, from some of the Arctic’s leading experts, that will inform the way in which we consider, approach, and shape the new North. 

 As an Arctic resident, I believe we are at a most consequential time in our history when commitment to international engagement, cooperation, communication, and transparency will determine how well this new Arctic region endures change and integrates into the broader global landscape. 

Michael Sfraga, PhD, is the chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. He is the founding director of the Wilson’s Center’s Polar Institute where he currently serves as chair and distinguished scholar, and previously served as the director of the Global Risk and Resilience Program. An Alaskan and a geographer by training, his work focuses on the changing geography of the Arctic and Antarctic landscapes, Arctic policy, and the impacts and implications of a changing climate on political, social, economic, environmental, and security regimes in the Arctic. Sfraga served as distinguished co-lead scholar of the inaugural Fulbright Arctic Initiative from 2015-2017 and served in the same capacity from 2017-2019.

The New Arctic was made possible by my Wilson Center colleauges Stephanie Bowen, Jack Dukee, Michaela Stith, Lauren Booth, Kathy Butterfield, Cali Nathanson, Matt Starling, Molly Heinsler, Abegail Anderson, and Guzel Du Chateau.

Cover photo Tromsø, Norway at night from Fløya mountain courtesy Felix Rottmann on Unsplash.